Where Did All the Insurrectionists Go?
Part 1: Assessing Domestic Extremism a Year After January 6, 2021
Is domestic extremism—a year after the January 6, 2021 insurrection—better or worse in America?
As Americans approach the end of the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve spent more time apart physically and more time online collectively than any time in recent history. This isolation complicates our perceptions about extremism, risk, and possible violence, particularly when members of Congress present at the Capitol during the insurrection deny the attack occurred. Separately, the insurrection, the federal investigations it sprung, and the social media de-platforming it imbued catalyzed dynamic shifts in online hate speech and in-person organizing.
3 Trends To Watch Headed Into 2022
A year after January 6, domestic extremism is in some ways more prolific and in others tampered down, not necessarily better or worse as much as different and evolving. Our team began with an imperfect mapping of the U.S. domestic extremism landscape in March 2021 and then, in July 2021, we outlined trends shaping the extremist environment in the six months after the insurrection.
One year after one of the darkest moments in American history, here are three trends in the domestic extremism landscape worth watching headed into 2022:
Extremist activity has largely shifted from national to local. Many Americans watched the sad state of U.S. democracy live on television last January 6. Unprecedented anti-government mobilization and violence at the nation’s Capitol seemed unthinkable to many. Over the past year, anti-government mobilization, intimidation, and violence has occurred in D.C. by one-off stochastic attackers (see April 2 and August 19), but anti-government resistance has moved from the nation’s capital to state capitals, from the National Mall to local vaccine distribution centers, and from Congressional meetings to school board meetings. National extremist groups—like the Proud Boys or Three Percenters—have continued splintering from national leadership throughout 2021. Local breakaway chapters of these organizations, however, continue to mobilize in their respective regions using variants of the national organization name or creating entirely new labels for their groups.
Younger white supremacists, neo-Nazis and incels are energized online and finding each other in the real world. Young white supremacist groups—both those known and newly formed—are revamping recruitment, coordinating online, and finding social media footholds on platforms that lack moderation. As noted in our post in March 2021 and repeatedly during FBI Director Wray’s testimony before Congress last year, racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism remains the top domestic terror threat in America far more likely to plot mass casualty events or carry out attacks against individual targets than other strains of extremism.
Anti-government sentiment and conspiracies collide. 2021 was rife with conspiracy theories and misinformation, from COVID-19 to vaccines to those still spreading lies about the results of the 2020 election. As the QAnon movement faded, these enthusiasts drifted toward other conspiracies, notably anti-vaccine groups. The most noteworthy shift throughout the year was the growing overlap between far-right groups engaging in real-world political mobilization and those motivated by conspiracy theories about COVID-19 or election results surfacing to protest against local governments. (Figure 5 - Local Mobilizers) For more on this ideological blurring, I recommend this Lawfare article.
Anti-government organizing comes to your hometown
Large militia groups like the Oath Keepers and many Three Percent groups have largely remained stagnant since the summer, conducting fewer public rallies as federal investigations probe the roles of their individual members in the January 6 insurrection. Paranoia and the need for reduced visibility have depressed large-scale coordination and encouraged a more local focus.
These militias draw their ranks and ideologies from the broader anti-government extremist movement, often overlapping with sovereign citizen and boogaloo circles—groups that have visibly remained committed to anti-government rhetoric and violence this year.
Throughout the summer and fall of 2021, anti-government sovereign citizens committed multiple attacks—some targeting law enforcement—and engaged in armed standoffs with police, most notably the Massachusetts incident involving members of Rise of the Moors, a Moorish sovereign citizen group. Another sovereign citizen, Jessica Worsham, opened fire on police and killed a deputy responding to a November domestic call in Georgia; Worsham had previously called herself a sovereign citizen “immune from the law” and condemned local law enforcement and judicial officials online.
As we enter 2022, the likelihood of anti-government violence performed by small-scale but deeply motivated actors, particularly at the local level, remains high. Large regional and national militias make noise and run a high risk of detection; their smaller local splinters, motivated by issues closer to home, can operate more silently and may select less-protected targets. Sovereign citizens, who often operate as individuals, and adherents of the boogaloo movement, who frequently form small, regionally based cells, remain fixated on law enforcement and other government entities, creating an enduring risk of targeted deadly attack.
White supremacists revive & adapt
The insurrection highlighted anti-government extremism, bringing it to the attention of a concerned public, but FBI Director Wray noted consistently throughout public testimony that racially motivated groups, namely white supremacists, remained the top domestic terrorism concern. Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Mayorkas echoed these warnings during Senate testimony citing “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists” as the top threat. Attorney General Garland provided more emphasis noting: “Specifically those who advocate for the superiority of the white race.” In the year since January 6, white supremacist activity online and in person from both known and newly established groups has visibly increased, and some of the worst offenders once thought to be in decline have seemingly been revived.
As seen in the top left quadrant of Figure 5, a steady growth of in-person collectives has brought a younger generation of white supremacists onto the streets and into social media feeds. For example, Patriot Front, after partnering with Media2Rise, the propaganda arm of the Rise Above Movement, used a fake Twitter persona to gain a following during one of its flash mobs propaganda across social media platforms. Adherents of other white supremacist groups have used popular hashtags and captions (such as #blm) in attempts to game social media platforms’ algorithms and spread hate speech to wider audiences. In sum, the younger generation of white supremacists is much more tech savvy and now mirroring the older generation with in-person, group mobilization.
Groups that were assumed defunct or disbanded have also resurrected online: Cells like Atomwaffen Division claim to have “reactivated,” while National Socialist Order (NSO), an Atomwaffen breakaway group, resumed recruitment after a months-long hiatus. Siege author James Mason, whose previous social media accounts had been banned, has surfaced in the digital space once again on Odysee, a new video-sharing platform. Smaller, lesser-known hate groups have banded together online to form alliances, promoting one another’s propaganda and possibly coordinating in-person activity.
The next coup will be local, not national
Many who deny the outcome of the election, believe the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax, or claim that vaccines contain microchips could not make it to the U.S. Capitol on a work-week Wednesday in the middle of winter last January. The mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol last January 6, 2021 represented only a small subset of a much broader national movement that has redirected its anger from Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and former Vice President Mike Pence to their local government officials.
The QAnon movement lost tremendous steam post-election, but those that believe in one conspiracy often believe many. When one scheme fades into the background, committed conspiracists quickly search and find another elusive, secret cabal controlling their daily lives. In 2021, the battle against a so-called establishment shifted to local elections, election workers and volunteers, COVID-19 vaccine clinics, and frontline medical workers—and in some cases school board meetings. In 2022, anti-government protest has a much shorter commute.
Here, at local rallies in state capitals or town halls, conspiracists surface alongside more politically motivated local militia chapters to challenge, try to coerce, and intimidate local government workers who lack the protections of federal security. New alleged “election integrity” groups believing in the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen have popped up at protests and conducted door knocking to audit election results setting the stage for local confrontations in 2022. With Midterm elections approaching, a new Omicron COVID wave creating intermittent lockdowns, mask mandates, and vaccine booster pushes, local government gatherings will be a flashpoint for random (stochastic) violence or even small-cell extremism.
Note, every American has the right to protest peacefully, attend rallies and participate in public school board meetings (I sympathize with the need for children to have access to education during the pandemic.) The concern outlined above is that for most online collectives mentioned above, about 10% are advocating or condoning extremist violence and I’d estimate 1% have resolved to undertake terrorism on behalf of their chosen cause. For more on this dynamic, see here at “Extremism: When Should We Worry?”.
This concludes Part 1, our update on the domestic terrorism landscape. Next up this week, Part 2 (published here on Jan. 5, 2022), which covers social media migration: Where do extremists go to spread hate after an insurrection?
See also Part 3 (published here on Jan. 6, 2022), which concludes the series asking: Where Is Domestic Terrorism Headed in 2022?